Turning values into action

by Mary C Gentile. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2010

Social innovators are usually motivated by their personal values, yet they don’t always act on them, because they are afraid it might lead to conflict.  Even when they do act, it often ends badly.  To remedy this, social innovators can learn how to articulate their values consistently and act on them in a way that is likely to lead to good outcomes. So concludes Gentile in her article.

She states that despite facing complex dilemmas some social innovators are able to successfully articulate and act on their values, and we can learn from them.  She maintains this is a skill that can be developed principally by anticipating the types of conflicts of values that might arise and practising our responses to them.  It is an approach called Giving Voice to Values (GVV).

She talks of her experience at Columbia Business School where students recounted pressures to distort earning reports, pressures to inflate product capabilities, to lie to colleagues or customers etc.  She questioned why some students were able to act on their values while others were not able to do so.  The only difference that she could find was at some point during the experience the successful students had spoken to a friend, a family member or a spouse, but what eventually changed the trajectory of the experience was that they were able to say something to someone inside their organisation about their dilemma – in effect giving voice to their values.

GVV is based on the principle that we can become better at acting on our values if we give voice to them beforehand by researching the situations, crafting action plans, pre-scripting our responses and practising our scripts.  The program has been piloted in more than 100 schools and organisations on five continents.  Although designed for MBA students, increasingly it is being used in a variety of business and third sector organisations.

It is based on seven principles: values, choice, normality, purpose, self-knowledge, voice, and rationalisations. 

Gentile maintains that despite cultural differences, there is a set of values that everyone around the world shares: honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness and compassion.  GVV encourages us to look back at our history and think of times when we voiced or acted on our values in the face of a challenge, as well as times when we failed to do so.  Acknowledging and examining these choices can expand our ability to choose to enact our values in the future.  Values conflicts are a regular and predictable part of our professional lives.  By recognising the normality of our ethical challenges, we reduce the tendency to vilify those with whom we disagree – a position that often limits our effectiveness in working with them. 

People working in all types of organisations are likely to run into ethical conflicts.  Gentile argues that GVV offers us a set of tools that can be used in the service of a positive social goal for which we want to enlist others’ support.  

To read the full article see www.ssireview.org/articles/

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